Many who have had the “pleasure” of traveling by plane in the past few years have no doubt been placed in a veritable Hurt Locker of bag fees and surcharges. The Adams v. US Airways, Inc.pdf 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 14660 (D. Ariz. Feb. 11, 2011), matter arose from those humble beginnings, much like Dev Patel in Slumdog Millionaire, to find itself before the District Court of Arizona. But, unlike Josh Brolin’s character in No Country for Old Men, who found himself unexpectedly rich upon discovering a bag full of money, the plaintiff skycaps at issue in Adams were unable to convince the District Court that US Airways was being unjustly enriched at the expense of an alleged minimum wage violation under the FLSA.
The Adams case was born when US Airways Departed from tradition and began charging a $2 per bag fee on passengers in 2005. As a result, and not unexpectedly, passengers began to tip skycap baggage handlers less. The skycaps felt the Crash of their paychecks plummeting, and in turn, alleged in a putative collective action that the reduced tipping dropped their wages below the required minimum wage in violation of the FLSA, and the equivalent Arizona law. Now a far cry from being a Million Dollar Baby, the plaintiffs alleged that US Airways was being unjustly enriched by their bag fees, and filed suit.
Unlike Samwise’s journey home in Return of the King, however, the skycap’s case was not long in duration. US Airways immediately raised the issue of whether the plaintiffs sufficiently pled that it was a joint employer. Without being a joint employer, US Airways was not liable for any damages under the FLSA. To determine whether or not a joint employer status existed, the court considered the “totality of the circumstances” and specifically looked at whether US Airways had: 1) the power to hire and fire the employees; 2) supervised and controlled employee work schedules and conditions of employment; 3) determined the rate and method of payment; and 4) maintained employment records.
With those factors in mind, the court dealt with the skycaps’ claims in (as Sean Connery famously described) the “Chicago way”: First, the skycap services were not essential to US Airways’ business. Second, there was no indication that US Airways had the power to hire and fire, control schedules, payment, or anything other than the two dollars assessed as a bag fee. So while it may have taken A Beautiful Mind to come up with the unjust enrichment theory on behalf of the skycaps, the court ultimately held that plaintiffs’ conclusory allegations “do not demonstrate the plausibility of a claim that US Airways is a joint employer.”
With that finding in hand, the court cut through the remaining claims like a Gladiator—without joint employer status under the FLSA, the relationship between US Airways and the skycaps was “too attenuated” to result in unjust enrichment for the airline. The claim was summarily dismissed.
The Bottom Line: As the saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. By proving it wasn’t a joint employer under the FLSA, US Airways sidestepped a potentially expensive (and time-consuming) collective action without having to run the usual gamut of exemptions.
And one last note: This is actually the third case in less than a year involving skycaps. In an earlier decision mentioned here in Adams, Thompson v. U.S. Airways, Inc., 717 F. Supp. 2d 468 (E.D. Pa. 2010), the court found that US Airways controlled decisions relating to skycap compensation or the performance of services. No similar facts were alleged in this matter, making it, if nothing else, a nice companion piece, and proof that factual details make all the difference in the world.
And just prior to Thompson, the skycaps in Travers v. JetBlue Airways Corp., Case No. 08-10730-GAO (D. Mass. Sept. 30, 2010), alleged a similar claim to the one in Adams when they, too, found their tips decreased following an increase in bag fees. The court in Travers denied conditional certification (despite having denied, for the most part, the defendants’ summary judgment motions).